April 21st, 2021

Beyond .223 Rem — The Many Alternative AR Chamberings

AR15 AR AR-15 cartridge alternative
AR-15 Cartridge line-up image from 80% Arms, used with permission. This selection omits our favorite alternative — the 20 Practical (.223 Rem necked down to .204 Caliber).

Instead of using the standard .223 Remington or 5.56x45mm NATO round, you have many options for an AR-15, as shown above. This photo is from Complete Guide to Alternative AR-15 Rounds in the 80% Arms Blog. Some of the most notable alternative chamberings for AR-15s are:

20 Practical — Simply the .223 Rem necked down to .204 caliber. Requires new barrel. Same bolt, same magazines. Best Bang for the Buck.
6.5 Grendel — Moderately expensive, 6.5 Grendel requires a new barrel, bolt, and magazines. Most use the 6.5 Grendel for competitive shooting and/or hunting.
.300 Blackout — Moderately expensive, the .300 Blackout requires a barrel change. This is used for home defense, and hunting. WARNING — with some bullets this round can be chambered in a .223 Rem barrel, with disastrous consequences.
.458 SOCOM — Pretty expensive, requires new barrel and bolt. The .458 SOCOM round is typically used for hunting though it was originally designed for Close Quarters Battle (CQB).
.50 Beowulf — The most expensive alternative AR-15 cartridge, this requires new barrel and bolt. The .50 Beowulf was created for game hunting, but most hunters use something more practical.

Of these five options, our top choice is the 20 Practical, followed by the 6.5 Grendel. Check out our featured 20 Practical AR Rifle Report. This 20 Practical cartridge is highly effective on small varmints, and has shown outstanding accuracy in AR-platform rifles crafted by Robert Whitley.

20 Practical — High-Velocity, Affordable Alternative

The 20 Practical is simply a .223 Remington necked down to .204 caliber. This efficient little cartridge can launch 32-grainers at over 4200 fps, with impressive results on P-Dogs. This makes the 20 Practical a great choice for an AR-based varmint rifle.

20 Practical20 Practical Ultimate Varminter
A decade ago, as a “proof-of-concept”, AccurateShooter.com created a 20 Practical AR15 Ultimate Varminter with a custom 20-caliber upper from Robert Whitley of AR-X Enterprises, LLC. That project rifle was ultra-accurate — every 5-shot group out of the gun was less than the size of a dime. That gun was auctioned off, but Robert Whitley continues to produce custom 20 Practical AR15 uppers. (The 20 Practical cartridge is simply the .223 Rem necked down to 20 caliber — you can use standard .223 brass and load with standard .223 Rem dies. Just swap in a smaller expander and use smaller neck bushings.)

The 6.5 Grendel — Accurate, Plus Good for Hunters

The 6.5 Grendel round is one of the most accurate cartridges for the AR-15 platform. The 6.5 Grendel round offers a larger-diameter, .264-caliber (6.5mm) bullet running at good velocities. This provides ample energy for smaller game and deer. The 6.5 Grendel is often used for hunting deer up to 300 yards.

6.5 Grendel

History of the 6.5 Grendel Cartridge
The 6.5 Grendel originated as a 6mm PPC necked up to 6.5 mm. After Alexander Arms relinquished the “6.5 Grendel” Trademark, the 6.5 Grendel was standardized as an official SAAMI cartridge. It has become popular with target shooters and hunters alike because it is accurate, efficient, and offers modest recoil. Good for small to medium game, the 6.5 Grendel is becoming a popular chambering in lightweight hunting rifles, such as the Howa 1500 Youth Model.

6.5 Grendel Saami Hornady Brass

The .300 Blackout — Risky Business

The .300 Blackout appeals to folks who want a .30-caliber defense round. This can be loaded at various velocities. Loaded at subsonic speeds and shot with a suppressor, the .300 BLK offers very low sound levels. Unfortunately, that .300 Blackout cartridge can fit in a .223 Rem chamber. Shooting a .308-caliber bullet in .223 bore is a recipe for disaster.

.300 AAC Blackout 300 BLK kaboom accident blowup cartridge failure barrel .223 Rem 5.56

.300 AAC Blackout 300 BLK kaboom accident blowup cartridge failure barrel .223 Rem 5.56The .300 AAC Blackout aka “300 BLK”, is a compact 30-caliber cartridge designed to work in AR-15 rifles. It has a shorter cartridge case to accommodate the bigger 30-caliber bullet while still fitting in a standard AR-15 magazine. Unfortunately, that’s the danger. A careless shooter can toss a .300 Blackout cartridge in with .223 Rem rounds without noting. And because the case-head size is the same as the .223 Rem (5.56×45) the rifle’s bolt assembly will happily chamber and fire the .300 BLK round. Problem is, that forces a .308 diameter bullet down an undersized .223-caliber bore. Not good!

This images were provided by Tactical Rifle Shooters on Facebook. The message was clear: “Don’t try to run 300 Blackout in your .223/5.56mm. It won’t end well. The problem is identical rifles and identical magazines but different calibers.”

Image from Accurate Shooter Forum. Cutaway shows the jammed .30-Cal bullet:
.300 AAC Blackout 300 BLK kaboom accident blowup cartridge failure barrel .223 Rem 5.56

For those who MUST have a .300 Blackout, here are some things you can do:

1. Use different colored magazines for .300 Blackout vs. .223 Remington.
2. Mark .223 Rem upper handguards with the caliber in bright paint.
2. Fit all your uppers with caliber-labeled ejection port covers.
4. Mark all .300 BLK Rounds with heavy black marker.

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